When Walter and Pauline Duda opened their eponymous tavern in 1949, Fells Point was an industrial hub, home to waterfront businesses and warehouses. The paving-stone streets are still there and much of the architecture has remained the same, but these days, the neighborhood's primary industry is a vibrant restaurant and nightlife scene.
Duda's Tavern has adapted to the times. While retaining its corner-bar charm, it has evolved from a shot-and-beer bar to a welcoming hangout serving good drinks and capable takes on classic bar-friendly meals.
Scene & Decor On a recent Thursday night, the weather was lovely and Duda's was busy, both inside and out (the restaurant has a few outdoor tables). The vibe is vintage Fells Point: Baltimore-themed photos and signage covering the walls and the long bar dominating the narrow indoor space.
When we arrived at 6:30, we had our pick of seats, but the room quickly filled with drinkers, diners and even families.
Appetizer Duda's appetizers are made for a long session of drinking, ranging from gravy fries to clam strips. We started with an order of beer-battered banana peppers — the pickled kind — with a spicy dipping sauce ($6.99).
Our first bites were scorching hot, burning our tongues, but the combination of tart pepper, spicy sauce and crispy batter kept us coming back for more. The appetizer was uncomplicated, but tasty, well executed and different. It's not something we see on every menu.
Entrees Thursday night is steak night at Duda's, and we took advantage. For $12.99, we received a 12-ounce slab of steak, well-seasoned and cooked just to medium rare, with a crisp Caesar salad and a side of sweet potato fries (a 16-ounce New York strip is available any night for $21.99).
Sweet potato fries are past the point of trendy, and more often than not, they're limp, mushy and disappointing. Duda's fries, however, were crispy and fantastic.
The meal was straightforward, but each element was done well and seasoned correctly; it was better than bar food.
The chicken Chesapeake sandwich ($13.99), a new menu addition, was equally successful. An enormous chicken breast sat on a sturdy bun, slathered in creamy crab dip and sprinkled with cheddar cheese. The sandwich was a mess — crab dip ran over our hands as we ate — but well worth it.
Half the sandwich filled us up, especially since it came with a side of addictively crispy crinkle fries (they were better with a shake or two of Old Bay).
The second half of the sandwich made a nice lunch the next day; even the crab dip held up well after a night in the refrigerator and a few warming seconds in the microwave.
Drinks Even if you're not hungry, Duda's is a fun place to stop for a drink. We sampled a couple of beers on tap (Duda's has 16 taps, with 11 reserved for seasonal brews). Though we found Full Tilt's Baltimore Pale Ale ($5.50) too hoppy for our taste, we enjoyed the citrusy Aboriginal Gangster ($5.96) from the Eastern Shore's Burley Oak Brewing.
The bartender had a deft touch with mixed drinks, too. A Dark and Stormy ($5.96) was stiff and spicy, while a special cocktail, the Orange Bird ($5.50), was a refreshing mix of orange vodka, orange juice and Sprite.
Dessert After dinner, a peanut butter brownie ($4.99), layered with chocolate and topped with a scoop of ice cream, satisfied our sweet tooth. The brownie was simple but fresh and sweet.
Service Sometimes bars don't offer the best or most timely service; fortunately, that was not our experience at Duda's. Our waitress — a friendly woman who seemed genuinely pleased to help us navigate the menu — deftly handled all of the inside tables.
Our water was refilled regularly, drinks were offered promptly, and everything from the kitchen arrived piping hot. Even when she got busy with a large table, the waitress kept her eye on us. She didn't miss a beat.
Bottom Line Duda's has been a Fells Point favorite for nearly 65 years, making smart changes as its neighborhood evolved. Though the menu holds few surprises, it is filled with good, bar-friendly food. Add that to service that's both quick and friendly, and Duda's is positioned to do well in these discerning, food-loving times.
Back story: Opened in 1949 by Walter and Pauline Duda, Duda's Tavern is now operated by husband-and-wife team Antoinette Duda and John Flury, the fourth generation of Dudas running the show. Duda's has evolved while staying true to its corner-bar roots, with a solid list of beers on tap, simple and well-made drinks and an appealing, bar-friendly menu.
Parking: Street parking
Signature dish: Don't miss Duda's Thursday night steak special. At $12.99, the New York strip is a great deal, and it's nicely cooked and well seasoned. Order a side of crispy sweet potato fries and dig in.
Where: 1600 Thames Street, Baltimore
Contact: 410-276-9719; http://www.dudastavern.com
Open: 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. Monday-Friday; 12 p.m. to 1 a.m. Saturday; Closed Sunday
Credit Cards: All major
Rating: 2.5 stars
Reservations: Not accepted